Ravi Shankar

Shankar: In Celebration

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It's indicative of the odd position that Ravi Shankar occupies in Western musical culture that this four-CD set, In Celebration, which might otherwise find its way into the rarefied surroundings of classical music departments, or world music racks, instead often ends up in rock and pop sections, right alongside releases such as Crossroads by Eric Clapton or Dreams by the Allman Brothers Band. This four-CD set, produced by Shankar's longtime friend and admirer George Harrison, presents a surprisingly rich and diverse overview of Shankar's career across 38 years, from the end of the 1950s through 1995 -- although the earliest track here goes back to 1957, most of the material dates from the late 1960s through the 1980s, the period in which Shankar was at the peak of his fame and popularity with younger Western listeners. It's a sign of precisely how diverse his music is that In Celebration's makers have broken the set down into four separate idioms and categories: classical sitar, orchestral and ensembles, East-West collaborations, and vocal & experimental. To some extent, these are non-exclusive designations which overlap, but they allow a means of organizing the material at hand, which amounts to almost five hours of music, of which nearly a fifth is previously unreleased -- additionally, although Shankar has long been an EMI recording artist, and the label and Harrison undoubtedly could easily have filled this set with material from its vaults, Harrison also reached out to the World Pacific label for pieces representing Shankar's early U.S. output, and to his own vaults for access to material that Shankar recorded in association with (or even inspired by) the ex-Beatle, dating from the 1970s. Given that it generates from Angel Records, EMI's classical division, the 41 tracks here are not weighted very heavily toward Shankar's classical works, although they are represented in their best incarnations -- these include Sitar and Violin Duet with Yehudi Menuhin, movements from the "Sitar Concerto No. 1" with André Previn, and Morning Love with Jean-Pierre Rampal; Harrison and company wait until the third disc to get to those and other stylistically related works. But the first disc plunges us head-first into a selection of ragas and related works in traditional form, across four decades -- amazingly, there is no discernible difference in quality between the 1950s and 1990s sides, and the disc is something of an education (and a crash course at that) in the traditional aspects of the sitar. Disc two showcases Shankar working within a classic Hindustani idiom, but in collaboration with slightly larger ensembles. Disc three is the classical music volume, and disc four contains the lion's share of the 1970s vintage material recorded under the auspices of Harrison, as well as capturing Shankar working in a vocal music mode (including his own vocals, which are astonishingly beautiful and affecting). Each disc is different enough from what came before so that the listener is constantly surprised by new discoveries, and the last disc, with the addition of the voices, is the most delightful of all, spotlighting Shankar the composer and leader as well as Shankar the instrumentalist, and offering a rich, bracing body of music that stands apart from most listeners' associations with his work from the 1960s and early 1970s. From the opening "Vandana" it draws us into a realm of music that is so sublimely beautiful that it makes everything that has come before it, in all its bejeweled splendor, seem almost plain and pale by comparison. The set includes a well-annotated booklet giving a detailed account of Shankar's life and career, and even includes a handy glossary of terms relevant to an understanding of Hindustani music for those unfamiliar with it.

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